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Navajo Nation calendar highlights work of mystery photographer

A mysterious box of century-old photographs depicting Navajo culture and Western pioneers has been brought to life by two old friends from Dolores.

A calendar project called “Hogback in Time” was created by Vern Ince and David Reineke to showcase a box of historic photos bought from a Farmington pawn shop owner a decade ago. They reveal day-to-day life in the Southwest, particularly Navajo Country, the San Juan Basin and the Hogback area of northern New Mexico.

The photographer is unknown, and many of the 275 images were exposed on dry plate glass negatives used in early photography.

Ince bought the box of glass plate and film negatives for $300 in 2010 from an acquaintance who had owned the pawn shop on Main Street.

“He said a ‘real old Navajo man’ sold them to him around 1990 at his pawn shop. Looking at them, I knew I had to figure out a way to show them,” Ince said.

The quality black-and-white photos are full of action and interesting places. They focus on the humanity and lifestyles of northern New Mexico in the early 20th century.

They feature old trading posts, hogans with unidentified Navajo families, pioneers in wagons, railroads, sheep wool commerce, the first San Juan Basin oil rigs, Native American rodeos, and a world champion wrestling event held on the reservation.

Local historian Mike Ascroft donated rare photos of U.S. government negotiations with tribes during the Indian Reorganization Act.

Historical discovery

Ince and Reineke teamed up to launch the calendar project with carefully selected photos from the collection.

Reineke, who has a degree in history and taught art for many years, saw it as the perfect project. His wife, Jan, scanned the photos, and he touched them up in Photoshop. They were printed into calendars at Brand Central in Cortez.

In the calendar, they focused on a theme of pioneer and Native American cultures working together.

Reineke delved into the research of each scene in the photos, and Ince did much of the marketing and distribution.

“I finally got to use my history degree, and I’ve always loved photography,” Reineke said. “We breathed life back into these images.”

The longtime friends embarked on a journey of historical discovery as the project took off. They traveled to the places shown in the photos and got perspective from locals who shed light about the events and people.

A butcher shop owner near Kirtland, New Mexico, recognized a photo in the calendar of men constructing a stone building as an addition of the Bisti Trading Post. The shop owner’s father is in the photo.

Reineke’s research dates an oil rig in one image to 1922, making it one of the earliest in northern New Mexico. A similar oil rig, possibly the one in the photo, is on display at the Farmington Museum.

“A Navajo told us they called them grasshoppers by the way they moved,” he said.

The high resolution in the photos shows the unknown photographer was experienced with the camera technology of the day, which consisted of 50-pound cameras and portable labs.

For example, a bucking bull with a Native American rider is crisp to point the bull’s eye is gleaming.

“Whoever took them knew what they were doing with a camera. Some day, we will find the guy’s name and then we can do some more research,” Reineke said.

Other images appear to show Native Americans selling goods at the train station in Gallup, Ince said.

“An elder told us the women selling apples were Zuni or Hopi because the way they were dressed with leg wrappings,” he said.

One photo shows an arena with buffalo and cowboys and sign for a World Welterweight Wrestling Match featuring 1919 champion Manjiro “Matty” Matsuda vs. Bobby Samron.

Another shows a giant Bisti-style rug, identified by the circles and moons, and another shows a new looking 1928 Ford truck stacked with hay pulling up to the Fruitland Trading Post.

Calendar project gains momentum

The response to the photo-rich calendar has been amazing and heartwarming, the two friends said.

They’ve received letters and emails from all over the Navajo Nation requesting the calendars and have mailed them to people across the country, from New York, to California, Texas to Montana, and even to the United Kingdom.

“At first, we made 15 calendars for friends and family, and then it just took off,” Reineke said. “People are glad we are sharing the area’s heritage.”

They are also popular with history buffs, photographers and generational families in the area.

The 2020 first edition sold nearly 1,000 calendars, and the 2021 calendar with a different collection of the photos is looking to top that, he said. Instead of mailing each one out, they have found stores to carry them.

The friends said the project has turned into a fun hobby and has taken on a life of its own.

“We’re just covering our cost. We keep saying, ‘Let’s choose more photos and do one next year,’ so that is the plan,” Reineke said. “There is a lot of harmony with it; it’s been a pleasure. The project feels like we’re hooked up to a team of horses pulling us along.”

The whole point is to share a piece of local history that has been hidden away in a box, said the two friends, who are both 77.

“Learning about these places and people has been a real adventure,” Ince said. “We had a gold mine here, but did not know how to process it, then it all came together.”

“Hogback in Time” calendars are sold at various locations for $12 to $15. They can be found in Dolores at the Dolores Food Market and Dolores Outfitter; in Cortez at The Book Store and Antique & Artisans; in Mancos at the P&D Market; and in Durango at Affordable Framing. They are also distributed at New Mexico trading posts.

For more information or if you recognize people or places in the photos or know the photographer, email to hogbackintime@gmail.com


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